Not long ago, expectant parents were often advised to give away their family pets before a baby arrived, especially if there was a family history of allergies or asthma. The prevailing theory was that being around pets at a young age increased a child’s risk for these conditions. Given that many households have at least one pet, this was often an upsetting and difficult task. Research makes it clear that the controversy surrounding this approach is far from over.
One study used accumulated data from questionnaires over a 4 year period from 3,024 households. In the study, children were followed from ages 1-4. A doctor used a blood and skin prick test to look for the presence of allergic antibodies. Researchers found that children who were exposed to pets had a higher incidence of a pet allergy during the first 4 years of life. The findings were independent of their parents' allergies.
Although there have been other studies that conclude early exposure is beneficial, most studies on this topic do not adequately control for differences in the degree of animal exposure or for genetic factors that we know strongly influence the development of allergies (such as whether one or both parents are allergic). Larger and better studies (with longer follow-up periods) are needed before any recommendations can be made.
Until we have more solid evidence, parents will have to make decisions about pet ownership without knowing the health consequences on their newborns from their furry friends.
Although several studies have found that being around pets might help prevent young children from developing allergies, it cannot help a child who already has an allergy to cats, dogs, or other pets. If your child has already developed an allergy to your pet, it is a good idea to keep your child away from the pet.
If you do have a pet in your home and an allergic child, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology offers the following tips to help minimize contact with pets and their allergens:
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
Allergy Asthma Information Association
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Last reviewed October 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 1/21/2014